As usual, comedian Jon Stewart explained reality on a fake news show better than most "real" news outlets. On the August 16 broadcast of Comedy Central's Daily Show, Stewart imagined a world where peanut butter was treated with "huge amounts of hydrochloric acid to dissolve any potential dragon bones." Sure, people die from the acid--but the dragon bone problem is solved once and for all.
That absurd metaphor was used to illustrate the wave of "voter ID" laws in states like Pennsylvania--where, as Stewart put it, the possible disenfranchisement of over 700,000 legal Pennsylvania voters is "the price you pay to prevent something that doesn't happen."
Indeed, the Daily Show segment made the one point that any competent news report should make: The epidemic of voter impersonation fraud the laws are supposedly designed to counter doesn't exist. But most coverage treats this key fact as a footnote at best.
The literature on the subject points to one conclusion: Fraudulent voting is so rare as to be basically nonexistent (News21, 8/21/12; Brennan Center, 11/07). Even the state of Pennsylvania, in court to defend its ID law, admitted that the legislation exists to correct a problem it has not encountered (Talking Points Memo, 7/24/12).
So what do media say on the crucial question of fact? Like many other political disputes, reality is presented as though it were a partisan disagreement. "Democratic groups," reported the New York Times (4/30/12), "say they are part of a partisan, Republican effort to dampen the turnout of voters." On the other hand, "Advocates of the new laws, which have been passed in about 30 states since the last presidential election, say they are necessary to prevent voter fraud." Given that choice, most fair-minded readers would see that Democrats want to protect their ability to win, while Republicans want to stop the abuse of the electoral system.
That framing is typical in the Times' news section; an August 16 article by Ethan Bronner portrayed the dispute in Pennsylvania as one between critics of the law, who see it as a "Republican attempt to suppress participation" of Democratic voters, and backers of the law who claim to be "seeking to preserve the integrity of the electoral process."
The Washington Post (12/13/11) likewise explained, "liberal and civil rights groups" say the laws are "an attempt to depress minority voter turnout," while proponents "say they are needed to combat voter fraud." In USA Today (8/20/12), readers were told that "backers of the law say it is necessary to prevent voter fraud"; a subhead (2/20/12) put it succinctly: "Advocates Say They Stop Fraud; Critics See Discrimination."
Television coverage of the fight over voter participation has been remarkably sparse, considering the stakes. Only a handful of reports have aired on any of the broadcast networks. NBC's Pete Williams (3/13/12) explained that Republicans "say requiring a picture ID cuts down on fraud." Later, the Democrats "say the laws discourage turnout among minority, poor, elderly and disabled voters." The report included a soundbite from Attorney General Eric Holder, who noted that "there is no proof that our elections are marred by in-person voter fraud."
Making the blindingly obvious point that Holder raised would seem like a minimal requirement for a news report on vote fraud. It's difficult to imagine many other scenarios where the problem lawmakers say they are attempting to solve is assumed to be real--despite plenty of research on the subject that documents that there is no such problem.
But that fact is either missing from news accounts, included as a partisan claim or consigned to the last paragraphs. The New York Times story (8/16/12) on the Pennsylvania judge's decision to let the law stand mentioned, in the third to last paragraph, "the goal of ending fraud, which has been rare." A month earlier (7/20/12), the Times mentioned, at the end of a piece, that one Republican state senator found the law '"unnecessary given how uncommon in person voter fraud has been."
The most prominent exception in the corporate media might be CBS Evening News reporter Elaine Quijano, who actually went to the trouble of determining how many cases of reported fraud there have been. In an August 15 report, Quijano explained:
We looked at those 10 states which recently passed photo ID laws and found fewer than 70 voter fraud convictions in the past decade among 40 million registered voters.
And a few weeks earlier (7/28/12), Quijano noted that "in the past five years, Kansas has prosecuted only a handful of voter fraud cases; in Pennsylvania, none."
That clarity is rare. In fact, some media accounts seem to go out of their way to obscure this reality. In the Washington Post (12/13/11), reporter Jerry Markon wrote:
When it comes to voting fraud, some conservatives have long argued that it is a serious problem, although others say the number of such cases is relatively low. Studies of the issue have reached different conclusions on the extent of the problem.
Where are these differing studies? Markon explained in an email (FAIR Blog 12/13/11) that he was referring to a 2006 study by the U.S. Electoral Assistance Commission. But that report is fairly well-known in the field because its muddled final version was at odds with its own original draft, which had concluded that "there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling-place fraud." In fact, one of the authors of the original report wrote an op-ed in Markon's own paper (8/30/07) decrying the Bush administration's politicization of her work.
The Post article's approach was unusual; most news accounts seem completely uninterested in the question of how much fraud actually exists. Better, instead, to not bring up the issue--at least in the news section.
Indeed, the facts about the paucity of voter fraud are treated as though they are a matter of opinion, relegated to editorial and op-ed pages. The New York Times (e.g., 10/10/11) has written several strong pieces about the issue; USA Today (3/20/12) pointed out:
You'd think there was a raging epidemic of fraud around the country to justify all this diligent effort. But if there is, it's awfully hard to detect.
The paper went on to state: "In fact, what's really going on is a fight for partisan advantage." But that "fact" doesn't seem to enter into the news accounts of the issue--in their paper or most others.
The flipside of preventing a nonexistent problem is the creation of a real problem: Denying legitimate voters the opportunity to participate in an election. The Brennan Center for Justice (10/3/11) estimated that the "new laws could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012." It's beyond dispute that these laws will do far more to prevent legal voting than they will to prevent illegitimate participation in the voting process. Media that pretend to care about the integrity of the vote might want to give that some attention.